Colbert in Company: The Takeover of the Television Persona

Posted on June 12, 2011 by

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On June 19, skymechanic and I are going to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute  to see Stephen Colbert and a host of other celebrities in a limited-release recording of the New York Philharmonic’s revival of Company. This post isn’t about Company (though someday I’d like to discuss its proto-manchild protagonist) but about media coverage of Colbert’s participation. As I scoured the internet looking for tickets to the Company showing, I found many announcements of the show focusing solely on Colbert’s involvement. This itself isn’t odd; though he only plays a secondary character in Company, he holds the greatest television-to-theatre crossover appeal out of all the cast. What I did find odd was journalist’s shock over Colbert’s decision to appear onstage. One source  calls it an “out-of-nowhere stage performance” while another practically gasps, “Do you think this will be his only foray into stage production, or will he be bitten by the theatre bug?”

What makes this ridiculous is that Stephen Colbert majored in theatre at Northwestern. Though he focused on acting and improvisation, any professional actor worth their snuff is going to make sure they have at least passable singing – or that they can pretend they do. Anyone with access to Wikipedia – which journalists purportedly do – could figure that out. Of course, these are news sources like Entertainment Weekly, with headlines like “Does Barbie Hate Planet Earth?” and “40 Unforgettable Nude Scenes.” So. Their journalistic integrity is under question, to speak diplomatically. But I would be remiss in my cultural studies to dismiss such coverage as beneath my consideration simply because it’s popular. In fact, I often find popular media production and coverage more important than non-mainstream media simply for that reason. It’s popular and thus more widely consumed and more indicative of widespread narratives and consumption patterns. But I digress – that’s another post I’ll tackle later.

The Takeover of the Television Persona

What’s going on here are implications on two levels. On one, the narrative level, Colbert’s participation in Company is being subsumed into the narrative of his Stephen Colbert character. Stephen Colbert the character would never be caught dead in a musical; he’s way too hypermasculine, and besides, there’s something about dudes singing and dancing that’s just unAmerican. Stephen Colbert the actor, however, has no such qualms, obviously. Yet these journalists allow his hypermasculine ultraAmerican television persona to take over his more well-rounded and, dare I say, reasonable self. I find this particularly intriguing in light of an Emmy forecast  posted on Variety’s website this week, purportedly written by Abed Nadir of Community. Since I recently postedabout Abed, I would be remiss to ignore this example of a character becoming larger than his show.1

The reason why Abed’s forecast works and Colbert’s television persona overshadows his actor persona is the familiarity of the television presence. Television characters, whether they be Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock or the phenomenon we like to call Oprah Winfrey, are constant. Since viewers watch them every week for multiple years, they come to identify with and appreciate them far more than they would characters in other media. They also come to expect them to act like themselves. For instance, since viewers watched Charles Widmore on LOST act unabashedly evil week after week, when they sat down to watch LOST every week, they would expect Widmore to continue to behave that way. And he would. But if they sit down to watch an interview with Alan Dale, who plays Widmore, they might still expect him to be unabashedly evil. When he’s not, they get confused. What they thought would be comfortable and familiar (or as comfortable and familiar as a guy like Widmore can ever be) has proved not to be. So in the Colbert situation, viewers and journalists have become so comfortable with his television persona – even more so because his show broadcasts five nights a week – that they come to expect him to maintain his television persona off screen. This is especially damaging for Colbert because his television persona is so far from his actor persona.

Journalism Out of Thin Air

On another level, the business level, several things are happening with Colbert’s media coverage that illustrate the dominance of mainstream media over others. First, simple constructing of a news story out of thin air. A story about a concert revival of a forty-one-year-old musical isn’t going to get read – better give it some crossover appeal by noting that television star Stephen Colbert is in it! I’m sure this same thinking is what motivated the revival’s producers in the first place. It’s all about crossover appeal. The fact that journalists remain ignorant of this fact points to the primacy of television and other popular media presences over any other. The minutiae of television characters’ and stars’ lives are examined meticulously, whereas non-mainstream doings are erased or ignored. For that matter, non-mainstream media conventions are also ignored. Broadway exists in a strange valley between mainstream and not, but media coverage usually ignores its goings-on anyway, unless a crossover star ventures onto its Great White Way. If news sources paid a little more attention to Broadway, they would realize that using crossover stars from television and film onstage isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. Everyone from Twiggy to Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong has been in a musical or play or, in Armstrong’s case, taken part in the new iteration of crossover appeal: jukebox musicals (musicals based on existing popular music). However, journalists don’t need to pay attention to such conventions when it’s easier and more appealing to craft a story out of nowhere about an actor differing from his television persona. As the old timers say: guess that’s what passes for news these days.

1See also: Charlie Sheen?

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Posted in: Television